Any day now, Uber will introduce a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, making this former steel town the world's first city to let passengers hail autonomous vehicles. So with the world watching, what has the city of 306,000 done to prepare for Uber's unprecedented test? The answer is not much. There have been no public service announcements or demonstrations of the technology. Except for the mayor and one police official, no other top city leader has seen a self-driving Uber vehicle operate up close.
You won't find a bigger fan of the technology than me. I love robots, autonomy and artificial intelligence. I can still remember visiting Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and standing a few feet away from the car that nearly won the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004. But I'm also a realist -- and despite recent promises by Uber and Ford, I know that self-driving cars are decades away from becoming a significant part of our lives. You have to love Ford and its promise of a driverless car by 2021 -- a mere five years from now.
Perfecting the technology is essential to Uber, as autonomous vehicles could pare significant costs by replacing some 2.5 million human drivers and give it an edge in the technological race to upend personal and even commercial transportation. Uber is among auto makers and tech giants pursuing fully driverless cars on the belief they will ultimately save lives and costs. It isn't yet clear whether Uber is at fault, but the accident puts Mr. Khosrowshahi in a difficult position. Like his predecessor, Travis Kalanick, he has publicly touted Uber's driverless-car program, saying it could one day eliminate the need for people to own cars. He has even trumpeted flying taxis as a viable business in as soon as five years to shuttle people around cities.
Pittsburgh was the initial test city for Uber's self-driving car initiative. While our experience in one of the autonomous vehicles was thankfully pretty safe, it wasn't long before reports of accidents and wrong-way driving began to surface during the first month of the operation. Nine months later, the relationship continues to sour, according to a report in the New York Times. The things Uber promised in return for the city's support -- including free rides in driverless cars, backing the city's $50 million federal transportation grant and jobs for a neighborhood nearby Uber's testing track -- have not materialized. The situation was an issue during the mayoral primary, too, with critics calling out incumbent Bill Peduto for not getting these agreements in writing from the ride-sharing company.
Call it a moment decades in the making. Call it a blueprint for the revival of Rust Belt cities across the United States. Call it the beginning of the city of the future -- the City of Bridges that may soon be the first city on the planet where drivers are a thing of the past. Pittsburgh's relationship with self-driving cars has been called all of these things in the past few months, as its tumultuous relationship with Uber has put it at the forefront of autonomous driving technology. Uber put the eyes of the world on the Steel City last week when it announced that its first self-driving cars would begin to pick up passengers there this month.